Govan’s Diversity

Multiculturalism has taken something of a bashing in recent years and is often framed as a distinctly recent development, usually as some form of political ‘project’.  But, of course, it isn’t that recent, nor is it so devious. Britain has a long history of immigration whether by force or consent. Glasgow is undoubtedly Scotland’s immigrant city; the revolutionary changes that took place in the 19th century thrust the city to the forefront of Britain’s industrial charge.

Industrialisation brought with it increased employment opportunities in the urban centres of the country, and a general rising in the standard of living. Accompanying changes such as improved sanitation and public health administrations sat alongside the scourge of inadequate housing, hopeless poverty and urban ‘landscaping’ – the sort that saw the removal of hundreds of slum tenements to be replaced not with sturdy, spacious homes, but railway lines. One area that benefitted, in some ways, from the revolutionary change in Glasgow’s fortunes was Govan. Once a rural village, by the 19th century Govan was taking on the habits and trends of many towns in the central belt, that of an industrial locus. Industry was attracted to Govan’s location on the Clyde, which had been deepened the previous century, and it was during this period that its place as a centre of shipbuilding excellence took hold. By the late 19th century Govan was the 7th largest town in Scotland.


Map showing Govan in relation to Glasgow, 1654

Not only did the landscape of the town change but the population also changed, in number and form. In 1861 Govan’s population was dominated by Scots and Irish, who comprised around 98% of the population. The average percentage of Irish born for the whole of Scotland for 1861 was around the 7% mark, in Govan this was 18%. The peak for Irish immigration into Scotland had been in the years running up to, and immediately following, 1851, when as a result of the devastating potato blight that led to famine, 1 million Irish died and a further 1 million emigrated. In 1861 around 2% of the population of Govan was born in England. By 1881, Govan was beginning to attract an increasing number of Russians, Austrians and Poles, the first wave of Central and Eastern European migration.

What typified this latter form of international migration was that it was forced. These migrants were not decanting themselves to Scotland solely in the search for work – as English migrants had been doing – but this was necessitated by threat of harm, inflicted not by nature by man. The infamous anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia which erupted regularly during the late 19th century were murderous in their scope, claiming the lives of between 2500 and 5000 Jewish men, women and children (the exact numbers of those murdered is difficult to estimate).

Govan’s diversity is probably best demonstrated through examination of the census. In 1911, around 78% of the town’s population was Scottish born (which would have included second-generation Irish), 11% were Irish, around 7% were Russian or Polish, 4% were English and the rest were drawn from diverse backgrounds including, Austria, USA, Hungary, Germany, Turkey and France. In effect, over one fifth of the town’s population were not Scots born.

The impact that such levels of immigration had on Govan is difficult to measure; undoubtedly there would have existed some xenophobia (little has changed) but immigrants brought with them particular skill sets and an adaptability that was vital for survival. They also impacted upon the roll-call of Glasgow surnames, many of which still exist today. This is despite the mangling of non-British surnames which occurred when census staff filled in their records struggling with phonetics along the way: tracing one family I found that their surname had changed 3 times in 3 censuses.

Copyright © Jeff Meek 2013

All Rights Reserved.

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